Olympus OM-D E-M1 - Street and Travel

I purchased my Olympus OM-D E-M1 second hand mainly for street photography, perhaps travel, primarily looking to address two shortcomings of my Leica X typ 113 as my “go to” compact travel camera - lack of a built in viewfinder and interchangeable lenses. Whilst if I had to limit myself to one focal length it would be 35mm (or equivalent), I really enjoy changing from time to time, historically to a 50mm but more recently to 20mm or 24mm. With the recent launch of the Mark II version of the E-M1, the original is available at bargain prices for a fully sealed body with professional level build quality.

Fortunately the state of the second hand market right now means that it is easy to try different systems at very little cost, feed my enjoyment of cameras and hopefully land on the right system for me.

I have used the E-M1 with the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12mm f/2 exclusively so far and I guess this is as much commentary on the lens as the camera body. It has a sweet spot, which is to say it has a sour spot too. I don’t normally shoot wide open and I am not interested in pronounced subject isolation through a very small DoF in images, but the extreme depth of field with any 12mm lens, even when used at f/2.8 is a drawback for me. I am learning what I like and because I have used “full frame” mostly and some APS-C, I have never used a 12mm prime lens. What I am learning is that even the subtle out of focus foreground or background given by a 24mm lens at f/4 or faster, adds something to my regular street or candid people images. This is tough with the small micro four thirds sensor, so I am now forcing myself to shoot wide open at f/2 to try and introduce some sense of depth.

There is a quality of images shot at f/4 or narrower that I don’t like - they are almost too sharp across too deep a plane of focus, it actually helps if I add some grain or soften down the image. Otherwise they can tend to look a bit like snapshots. I find I can spot OM-D images frequently when browsing through Flickr or photography sites - they are characterised by sharpness and good colour fidelity but frequently large depth of field and movement in subjects, just have a look in Flickr and there is a theme emerging. This is not necessarily a bad thing but to have a theme “given” by equipment rather than decided by the photographer is not good either.

The sweet is the terrific sharpness of the lens, the relatively small size and the great handling of the system, particularly with the excellent and superbly built 12mm lens. It works well in simple compositions, naturally high contrast scenes and those with interesting lighting. The IBIS (in body image stabilisation) is also noteworthy and I am stunned by how slow I can shoot handheld and maintain sharpness, this is of course useless with a moving subject and I am not a landscape or cityscape photographer - herein lies the root of the sharp images with blurred people; reliance on IBIS rather than higher ISO.

I am tempted by the Olympus 25mm f/1.8 lens which I think I will enjoy but I am concerned that while I will get some good images, I will never feel fully satisfied with my wide angle pictures and will be forced back to looking at a full frame or perhaps APS-C sensor, so am honestly reluctant to invest further into micro four thirds at this stage.

Time will tell, I strongly believe any camera can be used effectively for so called street photography, I think smaller cameras are great, not because they need to be unseen - though quiet is good - but because they are easy to carry and feel more subtle in use. Some of my favourite street pictures have been taken with a full frame DSLR and a 20mm lens, but the Olympus does appeal because of the light weight and compact size while maintaining good speed and good ergonomics.

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